Image credit: DF / Public Seminar
In her new book, Bard, Kinetic, her latest publication from Coffee House Press, Beat poet Anne Waldman traverses her life through intimate prose, poetry, and autobiographical writing. Bard, Kinetic is a collection of Waldman’s spiritual experiences, relationships, influences, and correspondence, all held together by a framework of poetry, and assembled into a “B-side” for her other projects. Here, she takes a more personal turn and situates her artistic work in the context of her own life and mind, including her feminist epic, The Iovis Trilogy. In addition to her life-long poetry practice, Waldman is a co-founder of the Poetry Project and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.
Bard, Kinetic spans the intellectual, spiritual, and personal realms. Recently, Lindsey Scharold spoke with Waldman about where these themes overlap: where others intersect with memoir, where the spiritual aligns with the political, and where theory and practice meet.
Lindsey Scharold: Could you contextualize Bard, Kinetic in the feeling, or moment, in your life that it emerged from?
Anne Waldman: Quite a few moments. They are poems that weren’t really in other collections and span some time. There’s one very early piece, I think from the sixties, and things that didn’t fit into the next project I’m working on, which is another long poem in the manner of the one poem books that I seem to get obsessed with.
Bard, Kinetic started out as a book of talks, essays, and interviews, lectures at Naropa University, and responses to this and that. Some things have been published, some not, and there are also some eulogies in there, too, since more and more of my beloved friends are passing.
People always say to me, “You need to do something more personal, and more about your life,” so I included the first section, which goes up to the birth of my son. Memoir is not my favorite word to describe it: rather, it’s a compendium of more personal stories, details, and connections. I tried to highlight a sense of community, collaboration, and working with others, people I’ve known since we were all in our teens. It includes my study of Buddhism and some of the history of Naropa, my childhood and younger years, and covers things I haven’t talked much about before.
I couldn’t do the book without some poetry. The poetry is a kind of glue in places where I wanted a different frequency or vibration, but they’re not poems directed at a particular event. Instead, I work in zones, so there are poems that are in a certain zone, or a certain time period, or a certain focus, and they often involve some research or travel. This was a way to incorporate some of that work; otherwise, some of those things would have no home.
Scharold: I’m curious about your approach to telling your own story and how you approach that kind of narrative.
Waldman: Well, you get to be a certain age, and you’re letting go in a way. It’s not as if they’re things you have to keep from your mother—that’s just a metaphor really—my mother was pretty open and experimental herself. And there’s nothing so terribly secret or transgressive.
I do get a little paranoid about my political activity sometimes, having spent a lot of time with people who were being surveilled and investigated. So I used to have a bit more caution around those things, even though everybody now knows everything that you’re doing at every moment.
I felt that there was enough material that had a presence within my own life. It was fun to include a little bit of email correspondence with Joanne Kyger, and the conversations with Karen Weiser from a project that was intergenerational, an older poet speaking to a younger poet. There we were, getting to know each other at the time; it includes specific details about what was going on, what we were reading and writing, and so on.
That just seemed helpful to the book, to the sense of it not being a big production. Nothing was planned. But some of my collaborations were more structured. They had a goal, or an addition, or an artistic collaboration—something with musicians or performance and so on. Also, Bard, Kinetic is not in chronological order in some ultimate way. There is a feeling of the sections flowing in a direction and ending with some more recent things, like “I Wanted to Tell You About My Meditations on Jupiter.”
Scharold: You talk about “the contemporary” in the book, and you also reference a lot of recognizable artists that were your contemporaries. What was it like to realize that you all had a reputation or, now, a legacy?
Waldman: In the early years of the Poetry Project, I felt very connected to the idea of a space that we held onto like we had at St. Mark’s. I don’t know if you know the story of the sociologist at The New School who raised funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity under Lyndon Johnson to work with alienated youth on the Lower East Side. He picked St. Mark’s because of the film project, the theater genesis, and the Poetry Project, and he wanted to see who was coming to those workshops and do interviews and so on. That was a two-year project. And then we had to raise money. I had just become the director, and I had the energy and passion to try to maintain this and continue it.
A lot of artistic groups used spaces that were available and open to the arts and weren’t charging money at that time. It was an extraordinary time for that kind of space to exist and to have a community that needed it. Many younger people were involved and started their Mimeo magazines and had relationships that led to collaborative work, to organizational work, to political work, to activist work.
Then, when I went off to Naropa, where I had been invited with Allen Ginsburg and others, which I thought was a continuation of the experimental practices and communities and discourse of the post-war era—things like The New American Poetry anthology. So much had happened on the West Coast, and there was of course the whole Beat thing going. People were traveling back and forth across the country, making those kinds of interconnections. Whether it was Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan at Black Mountain, or the New York School, all these things were happening simultaneously.
I think there was a sense with my generation of being very tuned into everything going on at the time. We were profoundly disturbed by being born on the cusp of the atom bomb, studying the Holocaust, and seeing so much wrong, and wondering: Can there be poetry after atrocity?
How do you work with that? By rolling up your sleeves and just getting down to very specific things, like that we’re human and we have a need to express ourselves, and we need a way to do that in a culture that’s ruled by the capitalocene. From the start, we weren’t thinking about money and fame and credentials.
It’s not that this is what Bard, Kinetic is all about, but it is trying to capture the energy or habits of a restless mind. I love editing and bringing people together and curating and keeping some of the traditions that you can see in other modes of practice.
Scharold: I appreciate what you’re saying about community and legacy: that it was not so much about fame or fortune, but about carrying out an artistic tradition. As someone coming up in an era where everything seems very disconnected and digitized, I feel like there’s nothing that can replace a real, anchored community.
In our culture right now, there’s such a disconnect between the importance of art and spirituality versus the nitty-gritty news cycle and political life. Given the spiritual themes in your life and your writing, what you would say to someone who thinks that spirituality or the arts are escapist?
Waldman: Spirituality has never been escapist for me, and I’ve always felt art was, for want of a better word, a spiritual act which connects you up to all times, all places, all humans. Part of our humanity is to make these things. The origin of the word “poiesis” has to do with making and putting things together. We’re all composites anyway, we’re impermanent. That sense of ephemerality can actually be inspiring: you’re making, you’re deconstructing, you’re not holding on, you’re here to disappear on some level.
But at the same time, I’m very engaged with the archive, and how important it was to me to hear snippets of recordings from other artists—whether it was Anthonin Artaud or Vladimir Mayakovsky or Gertrude Stein—as well as film and other mediums that can give us a sense of voice and breath and the physicality of the artwork and the page. It’s extraordinary the way art can transform and translate so that all these things are still available in a world that’s overrun, as you say, with these dichotomies and the cultural divides in our government.
It’s very complicated, so you have to stay with one tone or mood at times in order to not lose your mind. There’s this text that’s just a few pages: It’s a lot of fun because as you’re reading it, you’re sort of looking into the night sky and you’re realizing you’re in this macrocosm and you’re in this other kind of cosmology. You are sitting with all this mystery about what’s going on in outer space.
Now with AI and plans to take things into outer space, Elon Musk and this insane empire building, with greed and capital, you have to ask: Is there any room for any antithesis reality?
I guess that’s been the thrust for me: trying to bring poetry into public space without trying to dominate anything, just taking a step forward. The Iovis project, for example, includes a lot of my life and travel and interaction and cut-up and montage, but it’s trying to piece together an epic poem of the times. It takes on, not even just the political sphere, but this sense of warring realms in all their manifestations, and then bringing in the voice of the child. I’m trying to do this more expansive rhizomic montage. That’s always interested me.
Bard, Kinetic is not a poem as much as a record, and I think of it as a diary. Not solid or strictly narrative, and with a lot of other voices coming in.
Read an excerpt from Bard, Kinetic, courtesy of Anne Waldman and Coffee House Press.
Lindsey Scharold is a journalist and MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School, whose arts writing has appeared in Cultured Magazine and Mn Artists.
Anne Waldman is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, and is a recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and is a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.